(This essay can be viewed as a video on YouTube.)
I’m looking at how the openings of successful novels hook readers, so I can learn from their example and write amazing openings in my own work. And while researching this topic, I’ve tried to read a variety of styles and genres. Genre is a huge factor in how readers approach new books, and that’s the focus of this essay, specifically in the 2013 novel Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan. Let’s see how it builds and subverts genre expectations to hook and satisfy readers.
(I’ll summarize the opening in case you haven’t read it, or you can read it yourself online.)
Summary of opening chapters
Prologue. London, 1986. The Young family have just flown in from Singapore. They arrive in the middle of a rainy night and try to check in to the luxury hotel where they have a reservation. But when the manager sees they’re Chinese, he refuses to serve them. We know the Youngs are upper-class, and we’re about to find out just HOW upper-class. Within a few minutes and a few phone calls, the Youngs return with the owner of the hotel giving them a personal tour. He announces to the staff that he’s just sold the hotel to the Youngs. Their first act as new owners is to fire the racist manager.
Chapter 1. New York, 2010. It’s 24 years later. We join a new scene in medias res — in the middle of the action (check out my video on that topic). Nicholas Young, one of the kids from the prologue, is grown up. He’s just asked his humble, college-professor girlfriend, Rachel Chu, to join him on his trip to Singapore; he’s going there for his friend’s wedding. After that, he and Rachel can travel around Asia and even meet Nick’s family. Rachel knows it’s a big step in their relationship, but she accepts Nick’s offer. But she’s not aware that Nick is from the highest strata of wealthy Asian families. That social circle learns about the trip and spreads the news all over the world.
Chapter 2. Singapore. News of the trip reaches Nick’s mother, Eleanor. She learns about it from the other rich wives in her Bible study group. They fill her head with rumours about Nick’s mysterious girlfriend, who isn’t from their closed world. Eleanor worries the girlfriend will be a gold-digger from Taiwan, and all she can do about the rumours is pray. “Please God, let it not be true.”
A simple structure
The first three chapters — namely the prologue, Chapter 1, and Chapter 2 — have a simple structure. It’s actually so simple that, as I look at it, I wonder how or why I never considered something like this in my own work. I also saw this structure in another novel I read recently: The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday by Saad Z. Hossain. It works like this: Each of the opening chapters gets assigned one major story element, such as setting, protagonist, and antagonist. You can deliver those chapters in any order you like.
So, in The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday, that structure started with us meeting the protagonists in Chapter 1, following them as they entered the main setting in Chapter 2, then learning more about the antagonists that lived in that setting in Chapter 3.
In Crazy Rich Asians, we start with the setting: the world of astronomical wealth where people get their revenge by buying your luxury hotel out from under you.
We follow that by meeting our sympathetic protagonists: two people who are at the periphery of that world.
We conclude the trifecta by meeting our antagonist, the one who represents and protects that world at all costs.
In the video version of this essay, I used footage of a Monopoly board while explaining that simple structure. However, Crazy Rich Asians also makes sense with an another game: chess. I can show you a board and a couple of pieces from different sides. Once you see them, you already know what you’re getting.
When you show the reader that board and those pieces, you’re showing them the genre. With chess, you know you’re getting a board game with two sides and lots of strategy. Which is different from Monopoly, which is a family game with lots of side deals and…crying? But it’s also different from a PlayStation controller, which also promises a game, but is a completely different experience.
So, that board is genre. When you show the reader the board, you show them the genre.
OK, but what does that mean, metaphors aside?
The opening often gives your reader a set of expectations. If those expectations are built with certain words and familiar tropes, then you’ve just told your reader to expect a particular genre. And readers often read books based on their tastes for genre.
They’re not any different from Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation.
In “Emergency Response” (Season 5, Episode 13), Ron is hosting a fundraising telethon and tells the viewers, “Please call now if you have questions about tonight’s gala, or one of my other interests: woodworking, novels about tall ships, meat — that sort of thing.”
Ron wants stories where people go out on the ocean and have adventure.
In “Harvest Festival” (Season 3, Episode 7), Ron says, “The advantage of being Leslie’s boss is that she does everything herself and there are never any problems. Which means, for the next week, I can sit in a lawn chair and read this book about old boats. Excuse me, I have to get back to work.”
Similarly, Crazy Rich Asians knows what readers of stories like this are looking for, and then gives it to them early, and in surprising ways, so the first decision the reader makes is to stay rather than to leave. Let’s see how the text does that.
First off is the style of language. Even if Crazy Rich Asians is about billionaires, the language isn’t trying to sound pretentious with elaborate metaphors or stylistic devices. That can work in another story, but here the writing flows beautiful, because it’s clear, fast, approachable, and casual. That might even be a reflection of the protagonist. Regardless, the chapters are relatively short and digestible, each with a small, specific problem. So the story keeps moving, even as we jet around the world and follow different characters.
Then there are the specific words that build up the chessboard and pieces, and help establish the genre expectations.
In the Prologue, we get words and images of luxury.
The hotel is described as being “owned by the Cavendish–Calthorpe–Gores since the reign of George IV and run for all intents and purposes like a private club” for aristocratic families.
The Youngs know they belong to that exclusive world and do some name-dropping of their own, saying, “this hotel came highly recommended to us by Mrs. Mince, the wife of the Anglican Bishop of Singapore.”
The kids, too, are eager to order expensive room service, because they’re used to their friends’ butlers serving them Iranian beluga caviar.
So, Genre Expectation #1: This is a novel about a world of obscene wealth. These characters are crazy rich.
But it’s also played for laughs; the novel is well aware of how absurd these lives are. That’s Genre Expectation #2: absurdity, satire, and comedy. After all, part of being crazy rich is being, well, crazy.
In Chapter 1, we get a snapshot of the protagonists, Nick and Rachel. There’s an ease in their conversation. It flows, they tease each other. That’s all a form of characterization, showing them as a functional, loving couple. So, Genre Expectation #3: a romantic relationship is at the heart of the novel. Subconsciously, the reader knows that when you begin with a stable status quo, the story will challenge it.
Which brings us to Chapter 2. We meet the main antagonist, and the dialogue here is entirely focused on appearances, name-dropping, and status. Eleanor is an antagonistic character because she’s in an antagonistic environment and uses antagonistic language. It’s a world of constant passive aggression, gossip and worry. Eleanor’s worry prejudices her against Rachel from the start. Genre Expectation #4: Eleanor is like the evil stepmother to Rachel’s Cinderella and Nick’s Prince Charming. It’s a fairy tale with a modern twist.
And yet the novel also reminds us we can’t take these people too seriously. We see that when the wives all pray to Jesus for help with their stock transactions. With all that wealth, they’re still petty and materialistic.
And that’s what makes the novel accessible to a wide demographic. The novel is wholeheartedly asking, “Wouldn’t it be fun to be that rich, beautiful, and powerful?” And it would. But we can enjoy this world while also having an ironic distance from it — which sometimes manifests as a hint of snark or gossip. So that’s Genre Expectation #5, which you find articulated in reviews that compare Crazy Rich Asians to Jane Austen’s books.
Another genre expectation is created by the action in those early chapters. Specifically, the action revolves around people just talking to each other. Sometimes it’s loving, and other times it’s competitive. But this is the meat-and-potatoes of the story; you don’t want to hide that or delay that if that’s what your novel is built on. Be proud of it.
So, in this world, it’s important to tell people, “those crosses are Harry Winston,” and “those rubies are from Burma.” It’s important to remind your cousin that “my best friend’s father […] is the third-richest man in Hong Kong.”
Does genre matter?
These are some of the expectations the text creates for the reader in the first three chapters. But what does it all add up to? What is the genre? And is that enough to attract or repel a reader? That’s where I throw the question over to you. What do you think the genre of Crazy Rich Asians is, and why, and how does that make you feel as a reader?
And finally, I know genre matters to publishers, agents and marketers. But for writers, understanding genre doesn’t mean being generic or formulaic. It means you know that people will label your book, and you’re aware of those labels and can consciously play with them. That said, does genre even matter to you — in this book, in books you love, and in the stories you write?
Let me know by leaving a response, or even Applause. Follow me to be notified of my future essays, where I’ll look at opening chapters from other great books. And drop by my YouTube channel to see this essay as a video.